Saturday, 7 December 2013

My date with Domaine de la Grange des Pères, Aniane, France

This is real, authentic, love-infused wine-making.

My heart was racing as I turned off the dusty road near the town of Aniane in the south of France. A weathered sign pointed reluctantly in its direction suggesting that visitors were either unexpected, unwelcome or both. I was on a blind date, but my target wasn’t aware of my imminent arrival.

Ostensibly, I was en route to watch a game of rugby in Montauban, but I couldn’t resist the lure of dropping in on one of my favourite growers, the fabled Domaine de la Grange des Pères. I remember using the term ‘dropping in’ then as it made me feel more comfortable, like one ‘drops in’ on an old family friend, but deep down I felt uneasy although the feeling wasn’t strong enough to stop me. I admit it openly – I’m in love with this domaine and its region, and I convinced myself that all is fair in love and war.

Just say it out loud: Domaine de la Grange des Pères. It rolls off the tongue mellifluously like honey trickling from a spoon. Overlay the regional accent du midi and the sound becomes even easier on the ear. For me, these sounds personify the south of France and evoke powerful memories of a time when I lived in the Vaucluse, a neighbouring départment.

In a little over 20 years, la Grange des Pères has entered the pantheon of great French wine domaines, its small stock exhausted swiftly by thirsty and lucky buyers. I had enjoyed their wines over the years (if I could find them), read about Alain, Bernard and Laurent Vaillé, and knew they had a reputation for being reserved and unreceptive to impromptu visits, but this just raised the stakes and piqued my excitement. I knew this would be a test of my character, French language and people skills, but I thrived on situations like this. My elevator pitch was ready.

I eventually found the domaine. The grange or barn itself was on the left, signaled by a garnet-coloured sign on an impressive limestone rock. I drove past it and turned left along a narrow track to their house which was a large but unassuming villa fronted by an imposing set of iron gates. The rusty doorbell was next to a small, hand-made, yellow sign confirming that the house was indeed part of la Grange des Pères. I felt nervous, as if I were gauchely intruding and would be rebuffed with a volley of French patois.

I didn’t even have time to ring their doorbell before Alain, the father, appeared. He was small with pointed features and was dressed in cool denim under the searing heat of the midday sun. He was chewing food. It suddenly dawned on me that I had committed one of France’s gravest sins and interrupted his lunch. Life, I thought, was about to get even harder.

“Bonjour monsieur, excusez-moi de vous déranger”, I stuttered. “Est-ce que vous faites des dégustations?” “Non”, he deadpanned, “nous ne les faisons pas”.

I had blown it. In a moment of excitement and nerves, I had forgotten to show empathy or willingness to engage him first. I had reduced the occasion to the merely functional and rather bluntly requested ‘a tasting’. As though my very existence depended on it, the adrenaline kicked in. I suddenly remembered my elevator pitch which consisted of telling him, in my best midi-accented French, how I used to live in Avignon, play rugby for Chateauneuf-du-Pape, date a French girl from Marseille and drink copious amounts of French wine. Now, I knew his wine, bought it, evangelised about it, drank it and loved it. I spoke passionately about la Grange des Pères - to its maker for goodness’ sake! My eyes implored him to let me in. It worked.

“Revenez après le déjeuner et je vous ferai une dégustation”, he said smiling.

I was ecstatic. I remember that feeling as I made the short drive to Aniane for lunch. The lunch wasn’t memorable for its quality or quantity, but the anticipation had suppressed my appetite. Afterwards, Alain met me at the grange and we spent over two hours tasting his 2006 red in barrique, the cabernet sauvignon, syrah and mourvèdre wines all separated.

I drooled over their quality and the setting. They were all rich, powerful and magnificent even if they were unfinished. His wines, like those of le Domaine de Trevallon (where Laurent, Alain’s youngest son, had trained under the tutelage of the great Eloi Dürrbach), have a distinct flavour and perfume which I rarely taste anywhere else.

La Grange des Pères is a combination of wild garrigue herbs, black fruits, freshness and meatiness. That day, each cépage brought something to the wine: the cabernet brought tautness and freshness; the syrah black fruits, meatiness and garrigue herbs; the mourvèdre some cherry, spice, earth and gaminess. Typically, the final blend also contains small quantities of counoise and petit verdot which enhance the freshness, fragrance and complexity.

We must have been tasting for an hour when Laurent came by, shook my hand and exchanged a few pleasantries, but he wasn’t one for making small talk. He was a shy man in a hurry as he sped past the grange and into the house. Alain, on the other hand, was very talkative and I had to drag myself away, very reluctantly, to get to that rugby match.

All this had happened in 2008 so in early July this year, I dropped in again. There was no point in calling or emailing or tweeting ahead because I knew that wasn’t the way they worked.

This time I tracked Alain down at the grange and he gave me the same generous welcome he had done five years before. He was again denim-clad, obviously older, but looking slim and very fit for a septuagenarian. Under the high sun, I could feel the sun prickling my head as we walked into the cool grange where we chatted for another two hours.

Rather than walk me through the wines this time, he told me all about his family. Bernard, his eldest son, had struggled at school due to poor teaching and become the family’s mechanical genius, able to resurrect old second hand farm machinery. Alain’s father was a marksman able to kill a wild boar at a hundred metres without sights. Laurent is the winemaking genius, constantly searching for improvement. They would like to buy more land to grow more roussanne and marsanne so they can increase production of their legendary white wine, but another local family owns the ideal site. They have stopped adding chardonnay to their whites because the wild boars eat the grapes before they can harvest them.

I bought one of the last cases of their 2010 red for cash which is now maturing in a generous friend’s cellar in the Pyrenees, but they had already exhausted their whites. Inside each case, they place a bay leaf and sprig of thyme, redolent of the warm, garrigue perfume. Laurent thinks his reds are best after a decade of cellaring, but says people who like them young should drink them earlier as there are no set rules for personal taste. Whatever the critics say, taste is in the mouth of the beholder and essentially subjective. It will be some time before I drink mine, assuming my friend doesn’t beat me to it which is entirely possible.

After a couple of very pleasant and memorable hours, I thanked Alain for his time, promised to return in the near future and drove to a restaurant he had recommended near Pic Saint Loup. Surrounded by the chattering cigales and seated under a glorious micocoulier tree which protected me from the high afternoon sun, I enjoyed a slow, late lunch of prawns à la japonaise (yes, even in the deep south of France), beef from the Aubrac region and local cheeses, washed down with a bottle of Mas Julien white (only because the restaurant didn’t have the very rare la Grange des Pères). Life doesn’t get much better than this, I thought.

Like Thierry Allemand of Cornas or Eloi Dürrbach of Trevallon, la Grange des Pères encapsulates everything I love about this type of wine making – artistry, passion, longevity, simplicity, humility, hard work and determination. The Vaillés represent the very antithesis of the quick-fix, blingy and ‘look-at-me’ culture. They cultivate wines not publicity. They just want to make great wines with an enduring sense of terroir.

If you are passionate about this wine and your French is up to it (complete fluency essential) and you don’t mind knocking on strangers’ doors, you could drop in to see them. On the off chance you track them down, you will have an unforgettable experience.

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